The importance of voice

Audio lectures in general … are a sensation for off-campus students … it is extremely important for the 6000 odd off campus students as generally we never even hear our lecturers speak – let alone chat to them or hear their lectures.

These words were written by a distance education student in response to reading a draft of the Educational Technology Framework developed at Monash University last year. To be honest, this surprised me just a little, as the lecture recordings to which he referred were just that – simple audio capture of live lectures. They are of varied quality, and cannot always be heard in conjunction with visual presentations. 

And it is not just the distance education students. MULO (Monash University Lectures Online) has been a surprise hit, with demand being just as high from on campus students. This has led to continual enhancements and improvements to MULO, including use of a range of formats.

As distance educators who aim to design and develop high quality learning materials, we may cringe when listening to some audio lectures, but how do we respond in the face of high student demand? What is our attitude to ‘capture’ of on campus lectures for distance education students?

Some staff have launched into podcasting with gusto, producing excellent audio lectures which have excited both their own students and other casual listeners. A leader in this genre is Peter Wagstaff, whose Marketing Today podcasts have hit the Top 40 educational broadcasts on iTunes.

And speaking of iTunes, my son, who is a science post-graduate student, has started to spend his spare time in the laboratory listening to (freely available on iTunes U) audio lectures, and has become particularly excited by ancient history. So much so, he’s downloaded some of the lectures onto my iPod Touch (my very welcome retirement present). In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Isabelle Pafford from UC Berkeley talking about the death of Caesar – pretty good stuff, actually!

So, how important is ‘voice’ in distance education? Actually, I’m not sure. Decades ago, new to distance teaching, I decided to produce audio-tapes to accompany my mathematics materials. Evaluation of their usefulness revealed that some students found them very helpful, but about half didn’t listen to them at all. But is it different today? Does the new generation of students require and react to audio materials in different ways than their predecessors?

Perhaps we should leave the last word to the above-quoted student, who noted that what he was encouraging was:

more communication between lecturers and students, and I believe that the more interaction off campus students get with their lecturers etc – the more likely they are going to enjoy their studies, do better in their studies and overall I think this will lower the attrition rate – which is good for everyone.



One thought on “The importance of voice

  1. Some excellent comments there David, and many thanks for the “plug”!

    I have to agree with your views on the variable quality and usefulness of audio recordings of lectures (e.g. MULO). In most cases, the vocal component of a lecture is only a small part of the message, and listening to such a recording can be painfully unengaging. A dedicated audio program, specifically designed for an “ipod-armed” audience, will always engage them more successfully than simply pressing the record button at the start of a face-to-face lecture.

    I’m looking forward to reading more on this issue, and as always I am more than happy to share my experiences with anyone else interested in this topic.


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